Ben Gilman, who died on Dec. 17 at 94, was the last of a breed — a moderate Republican. And that almost prevented him from becoming chairman of the International Relations Committee when his party won control of the House in the 1994 elections.
Gilman, who was first elected to Congress in 1972 and served for 30 years, was next in line to chair the prestigious committee, but the new right-wing leadership considered him too moderate and didn’t like his reputation for working across the aisle. Bipartisan cooperation in the new Gingrich era was termed “collaborating with the enemy” by the newly empowered hardliners.
Several Jewish leaders and organizations went to the incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to say that Gilman, the senior Jewish Republican in the House, had earned the chairmanship not only by right of seniority but also by his expertise and service. Gingrich, who considered himself a good friend of Israel, was told that rejecting Gilman would do much damage to Republicans among Jewish voters and contributors.
He received the well-deserved appointment.
I got to know Ben very well during the 1970s, when I was legislative assistant to the “other Ben” on the Foreign Affairs Committee, as it is known now, Benjamin S. Rosenthal (D-N.Y.), and in the 1980s when I was legislative director of AIPAC.
Ben was one of the strongest and most effective pro-Israel Republican voices in the House at a time when support in the GOP was significantly weaker than it is today. He was always rushing from one meeting or hearing to the next with a thick sheath of papers and folders under his arm.
Ben was an outspoken critic of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, accusing it of being too soft with some adversaries and pressing Israel too hard to make concessions to the Palestinians. He took a hard-line approach toward the Palestinians, spearheading legislation in 2000 that would have cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it unilaterally declared a Palestinian state.
A founder of the House Human Rights Caucus, Ben was tough but never mean or bitter like so many others. He believed in bipartisanship, something that has almost disappeared in today’s polarized and hyper-partisan Congress.
On several occasions, he played a key role in negotiating the release of several Americans imprisoned abroad and worked for the release of Russian refuseniks. He was well known among Jews in Moscow, who were excited to see him, said Hillel Weinberg, an aide who accompanied him on one of those trips.
He announced his retirement after redistricting and reapportionment in the wake of the 2000 census would have forced him to run against a sitting Republican.
Born in Poughkeepsie, the son of immigrants from Austria, Ben attended the University of Pennsylvania and New York Law School, and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew 35 missions over Japan, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters.
Before being elected to Congress, he was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1967 to 1972.
At a luncheon at the Capitol in 1998, he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “We want you to know that you’re not only among friends, but among mishpoche [family].”
When Ben retired in 2002, he was the oldest sitting representative in the House. Admirers recalled how he would set aside Fridays to meet with Orthodox and Russian constituents in Rockland County’s Monsey, to hear their concerns. “He would hold court,” Joseph Halfon, a longtime supporter and friend of Gilman’s from Rockland County, which is part of Gilman’s district, told JTA. “He was an icon in the community.”
Ben liked to tell the story about how he went with his father to Poland in 1933, traveling in part by horse and cart, to try to warn people in Rohatyn, the family’s ancestral village, of the rising Nazi threat and to persuade them to leave.
“He told my aunt it would get worse and worse, but she wouldn’t leave,” Ben said. “Her letters stopped in 1937 when they took her away. She was never heard from again.”
Ben was a true mensch. He was one of the best-liked and friendliest members of the House. We need more like him up on the Hill.